Overemphasising Service Can Lead To Underemphasising Gifts
In this post I want to explore the distinction between service and gifts in the local church. My working thesis is that larger churches draw heavily on service but do not prioritise gifts. And this is problematic.
God gifts Christians in order contribute to the maturity and faith of the local church. As I argued in a previous post, large churches typically resemble cruise liners more than they do racing yachts. That is, despite extensive involvement in the general running of a cruise, the majority of the staff on a cruise liner can hardly be considered integral to or invested in sailing. Similarly, large churches draw extensively on service but provide little room for the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Of course, large churches create countless positions. But many of those positions cater to the comfort of passengers. Most large churches can very likely point to an extensive volunteer roster, boasting numerous areas for service. However, on closer inspection, many of those roles are akin to working as the barman or card dealer on a cruise liner.
Now, I do not want to minimise Christian service. However, I don’t think that Christians should be content with only ever pouring tea, marshalling cars, ushering people to their seats, and setting up or stripping down the auditorium. I worry that the proliferation of such roles are designed to improve the church ‘experience’ or ‘shop window,’ but they don’t promote the use of our gifts.
An Illustration: Pouring Tea
Imagine a church with 10 000 Sunday attendees—I use “attendees” advisedly. Now let’s assume this church has 5 services on a Sunday. This would mean 2 000 people at each service, if they’re evenly spread. That number presents a significant logistical headache. But let’s forget the countless stewards involved in directing people from their car seats into the auditorium. My question is this: how many people are involved in serving tea to 2 000 people? 50? 100? I don’t know. We can guess it’s a lot.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s put a conservative number on it: 50. This would mean that every Sunday 250 Christians pour tea and smile awkwardly over the counter. Because at each service there are almost 2 000 attendees desperate for their post-service tea. Queues must be kept short and foyer congestion minimised—one of the marks of a healthy church is efficiency. Plus, someone might base the decision about the eternal destiny of their soul on what happens after your service. So make sure no one leaves without participating in the victuals. And, in order to ensure all of this happens, you’re going place 250 Christians behind the tea counter, and who knows how many others carrying out similar tasks.
Serving Tea Versus Serving With Your Gifts
“But,” you might interject,” that’s 250 Christians serving.” True. Only, they’re serving tea. Now, please don’t mishear me: I am well aware that God calls us to selflessly serve others. And sacrificial service will no doubt at times mean pouring tea or cleaning toilets—though, tellingly, almost no one signs up for the latter. I am fully persuaded that Christians should serve one another, willingly and humbly washing dishes, packing chairs, and of course pouring tea.
However, we should be slow to conflate gifts with serving. Large churches might involve more Christians in a wider variety of service. But I remain unconvinced that they encourage more believers to use their gifts. Yes, countless volunteers are needed to fulfil an extensive raft of roles that come with bigger churches. Only I fear that this means both leaders and congregants become preoccupied with service that is often merely cosmetic and superficial. At the same time, spiritual gifts are left undiscovered and under utilised.
Not All Service Involves Gifting
Please bear with me, for I am going to say something incendiary, with the potential of unprecedented backlash: serving tea is not a spiritual gift. I hope to return to the New Testament’s ‘gift lists’ in another post (see Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28; Ephesians 4:11). But the bottom line for the time being is this: those 250 Christians may very well not be exercising their spiritual gifts on Sunday because they are serving tea.
That is, the massive demand on human resources of the large church might consign someone with the gift of prophecy to standing behind the tea counter; another person might use serving tea as a means of hiding their gifts under a bushel. Pouring tea—along with the numerous other experience improving areas of service at church—should never be where we stop in our own service. Added to those things we must desire and seek to express the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given us.
Let me bring this post to a close by returning to my introduction. The problem with larger churches is that they require more service. More people are involved in the logistics and practicalities on a Sunday gathering, from the the parking lot to pouring tea. Only these tasks don’t require any particular gifting. And while I commend every single Christian sacrificially pouring tea for others Sunday by Sunday, I am left wondering what more they might be doing. Thus I am not cheapening service but rather raising the issue of gifts. God expects service. But he also equips us with gifts.